by Heather Marcoux
Paratriathlete Melissa Stockwell is preparing to make history in her sport’s first ever Paralympic competition in Brazil. Her assistance dog, Jake, won’t be with her as she swims, cycles, and runs for the gold, but her black Lab deserves his own medal for how he’s helped Melissa on the road to Rio.
“He truly makes every day better,” Stockwell said.
The paralympian’s partnership with Jake began in October 2009, five and half years after she became America’s first service woman to lose a limb in active combat in Iraq. She was 24 years old when she woke up in a Baghdad hospital, her left leg amputated above the knee as the result of a roadside bomb.
While recovering from her injuries at The Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Stockwell took up swimming as a form of physical therapy, a decision that eventually led to her being selected as a member of the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Swim Team. It was also at Walter Reed that she first noticed how some of her fellow wounded soldiers benefited from the company of assistance dogs. What she witnessed there planted the seed of an idea that would one day lead her to Jake.
“I saw the bond that they had and how much love there was between them. I waited a few years and then reached out to VetDogs to see about the possibility of getting a dog,” she explains.
Launched in 2003 by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, VetDogs places highly-trained assistance dogs with veterans like Stockwell. The $50,000 it takes to breed, train, and place dogs like Jake is supported through donations, at no cost to the veteran. For Stockwell, Jake’s customized training and constant companionship are priceless.
“While he can do things like bring me my crutches when I take my prosthetic leg up, bring me things when I drop them, and help me up the stairs if needed, what he really does is bring me daily unconditional love,” she says, adding that the eight-year-old dog is also pretty great at cleaning up any food her toddler son drops.
Her son and Jake have a special relationship, too!
When Jake isn’t hanging out under the highchair he can be found by Stockwell’s side, even during training. They were matched one year after Stockwell swam for the United States in Beijing, and just as she was dedicating herself to a new sport: paratriathlon. Her rigorous training regime provided plenty of opportunities to hit the track with her new dog.
“When Jake was younger, he went on almost every run with me,” she recalls. “We even ran a half marathon together.”
With age catching up with him, Jake is now sitting out some of the more strenuous training sessions, but the determined assistance dog is still an enthusiastic running buddy to Stockwell.
“These days, he will do my slower, shorter runs with me. And if I am running on a treadmill at the gym and there is one open next to me, it’s not uncommon for him to get on it,” she explains.
Jake’s companionship was a welcome distraction for Stockwell earlier this year as she anxiously waited to find out if she would be among the 60 triathletes from around the world competing for the sport’s first paralympic gold in Brazil.
“It was a tough couple of months wondering if I was going to be competing,” says the three-time paratriathlon world champion.
As Stockwell waited for the news, the lessons Jake brought into her life came in handy. She says the loyal dog helped her realize that there is always happiness to be found.
“He’s taught me that when we are on a walk, or at the park, to live in the moment and in that walk or wherever we are,” says Stockwell.
When her selection was announced Stockwell felt like a weight was lifted from her shoulders, and as she prepares for the games she knows that at the end of a long or difficult training day, Jake is always there to put a smile on her face either with his winning attitude or treat-stealing antics.
According to Stockwell, the dog’s charm infects others as well. He steals the show during charity events and other appearances, and her fellow athletes have been known to fall for the retriever, who she says just makes everything better.
“Jake is an easy dog to love,” the athlete explains.
Whether or not this Purple Heart soldier makes the podium to bring a medal back to American soil, she knows her four-legged running buddy will be supporting her — just like he always does.
“Coming home to a tail wagging, tongue licking dog that jumps around like he’s two never gets old.”